The Beautiful and the Dammed

From the foreword to Dam Nation: Dispatches from the Water Underground edited by Cleo Woelfle-Erskin, July Oskar Cole and Laura Allen. (Softskull Press, 2007)

More than 700 feet below the surreal steel span of Glen Canyon Bridge, the Colorado River bursts loose from the spillways of Glen Canyon Dam. The current of this once mud-red river is now a strange cartoon-blue, deathly cold, as it courses through the last 17 miles of Glen Canyon. Now, it is a river in name only, its every minute fluctuation controlled by hydroengineers and water bureaucrats. The Colorado is finally loose, but it is not free.

To the north stands the implacable concrete plug of Glen Canyon Dam: smooth, white, indifferent. Behind the blond wall stretches a dead lagoon of stagnant water 200 miles long, burying one of the most glorious canyons on Earth. Knowing that the one-armed explorer John Wesley Powell was something of a heroic figure to the conservation movement aligned against the Colorado dams, Floyd Dominy, chief hydro-imperialist and then-head of the Bureau of Reclamation, impishly decided to name Glen Canyon’s watery grave Lake Powell, Jewel of the Colorado.

Radical environmentalists, such Edward Abbey and David Brower, viewed the naming as kind of final sacrilege. But sticking Powell’s name on the reservoir is probably apt. The big hydro dams clotting the rivers of the world have always been pushed by progressives under the false promise of tamed rivers, cheap water for irrigation, and cheap power. Native ecosystems and native peoples be damned. Even Powell, a humane man by most accounts, thought this way. He would have dammed every river in the American West. Does it matter that he would have done so in the name of democracy?

In 1869 John Wesley Powell began his first venture down the Green and Colorado Rivers. This wasn’t an Army expedition. It didn’t enjoy the backing of the federal government. Powell wasn’t the hired errand boy of an eastern-industrialist-turned-philanthropist. He wasn’t searching for gold or oil. He was merely a largely self-educated teacher at a small college in rural Illinois with a consuming interest in geology. His expedition to the Colorado Plateau consisted of four small boats and a crew of nine other men: hunters, drifters, friends, and shell-shocked Civil War vets. It was financed by the Illinois Natural History Society he headed. Powell had neither the educational pedigree of Clarence Dutton nor the imperial ambitions of John Fremont.

Powell was the oddball on the roster of explorers of the American outback. His trip was as close to pure science as the West had yet seen. His conclusions from that trip, and his subsequent career, highlight the dangerous impurities bundled into that science, and the blind spots Powell shared with his cohorts. He presents us with a parable of intrusiveness*, heedlessness, and self-aggrandizement that often escapes the notice of an environmental movement more willing to iconize him for relative virtue than analyze his ultimately disastrous failures.

The trip took Powell and company through some of the world’s deepest and most beautiful canyons-including Lodore, Desolation, Labyrinth, Cataract, and the Grand-and over vicious rapids and through sizzling uncharted deserts and Indian country to the Colorado’s confluence with the Virgin River, at Grand Wash in southeastern Utah, 1,000 miles downstream. In 1875 after a second, federally-funded expedition crewed by geologists, photographers, and painters-and rooted on by the booster press and Congress-Powell produced his self-glorifying bestseller Exploration of the Colorado River. Three years later his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region of the United States called for a reorganization of the development of the West under the auspices of a new government agency-which he, of course, would lead. Powell got to head the US Geological Survey; but the West’s fate ended up in the hands of the Bureaus of Reclamation and Land Management.

However awed he might have been by the landscapes he traversed, Powell never shared Thoreau’s belief in the redemptive power of wilderness and of wild, untamed rivers. Rather, he knew that the arid wasteland itself must be “redeemed”: by the judicious application of irrigation principles. Mid-life, the amateur geologist who collected seashells on the banks of the Mississippi became a technocrat fascinated with harnessing the water of the West. Like Jefferson, Powell held that democratic values flourished from small farms and ranches. An appropriately irrigated West, Powell believed, would keep the interior reaches of the country from falling into the hands of monopolists and robber barons.

Powell dreamed of capturing the river’s power for utilitarian service. At various turns he could be called a progressive, a realist, a technocrat; under any label he was consistently ready to re-engineer nature and western society, an advocate of centralized planning on a vast scale. Powell was one of the first apostles of scarcity. Laudably, he would reject Jefferson’s gridded township system for political boundaries contoured to hydrographic basins. Still he was willing to impound nearly every drop of the Colorado River’s water behind dams–built high in the mountains in order to minimize evaporation. “All the waters of all the arid lands will eventually be taken from their natural channels,” he wrote. Note the double “all”.

Powell advocated this gargantuan water-impoundment even though he estimated that all of that water would yield viable crops or pasture on less than 3 percent of the arid Western lands. He sought to rationalize and control the development of these irrigation lands by reserving them in the public estate, making most of the West a kind of federal commons interspersed with homesteads and small communities.

“I early recognized that ultimately these natural features would present conditions which would control the institutional or legal problems,” Powell wrote in his Report on the Arid Lands. That is, the harsh terrain would form a natural safeguard against over-population and economic exploitation. He was wrong, of course. Soon he saw the power elite capture the government and use it to redesign the plumbing of the West-training the spigots to their own enterprises, irrigating the vast plantations of the Imperial, San Joaquin, and Sacramento valleys, worked by the West’s equivalent of slave labor. Irrigation led to servitude, not liberation; to cartels, not small-scale democracies; and the centralized water bureaucracy was a servant of the hydro-imperialists, not an honest broker of the public interest.

Powell began to see the shape of the future, and objected. He engaged in fierce congressional combat with Senator William Stewart of Nevada, the Ted Stevens of his time. Powell was one of the first whistleblowers and he met the fate assured most of his kind: he was chased out of office, running from trumped-up charges of corruption and financial malfeasance.

Was this disaster of water control the perversion of Powell’s vision, as he thought? It was different from anything the maverick explorer and politician had wanted or worked for. But it was in another way the culmination of his vision-of his deeper vision, which differed not at all from that of those he fought. The vision characterized enterprises of the era, from rail-laying, to buffalo-killing, to dam-building, to homesteading promotion, to forced relocation and outright massacres of Native peoples. It is the vision of Manifest Destiny.

When the Manifestly Destined looked out over the land, they saw deficiency: an incongruity between what was there and what was familiarly usable. The reflex thought after such vision is always, how to clear the slate and close that gap. Pre-existing human relationships to the land-honed over millennia of necessity, of error, of success-was invisible to the various explorers’ eyes. The functioning commons, the dynamic equilibrium of fire-managed forests and prairies, the intricate stewardship and sharing of a river’s salmon runs between dozens of autonomous peoples: rejected as impossible, these had to be denied and if necessary eradicated, with the plow, the canal, the cattle ranch, the grid of 160 acre wheat farms. As the US runs up against its borders, it begins to recognize the magnitude of loss incurred in its expansionist rampages. This book is a primer in that destruction and the possibilities of recovery.

Dam Nation begins with the Colorado, presenting a bleak portrait of the West’s greatest river in decline. The annual floods of the Green, Grand, and Colorado Rivers have been neutered, as upstream dams straight-jacket the flow of the rivers. The river channel is narrowing. The seasonal wetlands are vanishing. Springs and seeps are drying up. Beaches are disappearing. The water table is dropping. The cottonwood groves are dying off, and so are the sand and coyote willows, squeezed out by tamarisk. The river is losing its organic nutrients, as driftwood and other debris are entombed behind the dams. Endemic species of fish, like the humpback chub, which evolved only in the Colorado Basin, are sliding toward oblivion, replaced by catfish and carp. The water behind the dams is evaporating, turning saline, loading up with pesticides, petrochemicals, and fecal matter. The reservoirs are silting up, losing storage capacity and electrical generating capability.

On the Klamath River, the decline has reached bottom, giving us a glimpse of the Colorado’s near-certain future. The salmon of the Klamath River, once one of the mightiest runs on earth, have been for decades in a slow, steady slide toward extinction. Then, in 2002, 30,000 salmon died as they ascended the broiling river, deprived of water by the political antics of farmers in the Upper Basin who demanded full deliveries in a drought year. The gory front-page photos of mass death suggested a sudden catastrophic event, a singular tragic mistake. In fact, the salmon of the Klamath, which flows some 200 miles from southern Oregon to the northern California coast, are the victims of a system that has conspired against them since the 1940s at least. Industrial agriculture, backed by the federal government, has free reign to de-water the Klamath River to irrigate alfalfa, potatoes, and onions.

That the Yurok, Hoopa, Karuk, and Klamath tribes enjoy treaty rights to the river’s salmon and depend on those fish for food, income, and ceremonial rites has meant nothing to the irrigators’ agribusiness backers. The salmon are a looming impediment to their increasingly frail economic hold. Once the fish provided leverage for legal threats-via tribal lawsuits and the Endangered Species Act-the masters of the river plotted their final doom. With the troublesome fish out of the way, they believed that their precious waterworks would be safe.

In the wake of the fish kill, the Klamath River tribes stepped up their campaign against PacifiCorp’s relicensing of the four hydroelectric dams. The implausible latest addition to the alliance of tribes, environmentalists, fishermen, and Pacific Northwest ratepayers is the ultra-conservative Klamath Basin Water Users Association. The farmers, many of whom lost contracts after the 2001 water shutoffs, say that they have finally joined with the tribes because removing the dams would pull the basin back from the brink of crisis. (The alliance is praiseworthy, powerful, and barely precedented, but it must be noted: Farmers irrigating this dry cold land, trying to save their way of life, still ride in the same wooden boat going over the waterfall with John Wesley Powell.)

In the face of such united pressure, PacifiCorp has agreed to discuss dam removal. Those dams coming down would make the Klamath conflict-until now considered a hopeless battle-a turning point in the water wars. We already see farmers in the Deschutes basin heeding the Klamath’s terrible warning.

Deranged models of U.S. water control have been cloned across the developing world, always with the same bottom line: drowned riverine ecosystems, displaced communities, flooded sacred sites, extinctions, and resource privatization. Third World nations buying the hydro-power rap must hock their futures to the merciless cadre of global bankers, submitting to the neoliberal stricture of the IMF and World Bank. Water and power must be privatized, jacking up the price for basic necessities. The dams are vulnerable to catastrophic breaches and terrorist attacks-and I don’t mean terminally ill river-rats with a houseboat and 17 beer coolers packed with C-4 explosives. Object to the dictates of your imperial overlords and your brand-new dam might well become an inviting target for cruise missiles.

Worldwide, threatened river systems are crying out for a new generation of whistleblowers, for government biologists, hydrologists, and geologists willing to risk their own careers to save river ecosystems on the brink of collapse. Like Dai Qing in China, they will, almost certainly, be vilified, ridiculed, investigated, and threatened by the international cliques profiteering on the waters’ demise. In the U.S., the Bush administration, in collusion with its stacked Supreme Court, is axing the last frail protections federal whistleblowers enjoy. These scientists, should they ever step into the public spotlight, will need cover and protection. Can they look to Gang Green-the big DC enviro groups like the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society-the ones that gave you Glen Canyon Dam (and so many more)? Fat chance.

But we must leave these brave whistleblowers to their fates for the moment. Their alarms alone will never be enough. We learn from the example of John Wesley Powell that science, vision, and conscience will not suffice against the Leviathan’s momentum and might. Nor can any Bureau of Reclamation fish-saving compromise truly threaten the hegemony of the megadammers, wherein any water that makes it to the sea is water wasted, and no trickle goes unlevied. In just the same way, the hero model favored even by many eco-warriors actually perpetuates the mega-dam mindset. Those who would save the rivers must take the rivers for their heroes, and the salmon and chub, and look not to iconized individuals for leadership but to one another and to the earth itself for partnership. The Klamath River tribes, like the Mun River protesters and Cochabamba’s “Defenders of Water and Life” win more lasting victories than Gang Green. It will take a network of river consensus and the forging of a new water culture to bust the dams and to scour away their poisoned silts.

Dam Nation is a clarion call for a new global movement of resistance to the hydro-imperialists: a movement to stop new dams, decommission existing ones and restore wild rivers. This is a real reclamation movement whose compelling mantra is: Let the rivers flow and the river peoples be. Join it.

Moab, 2006.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. He can be reached at:



Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3